Lecturing in his blindness, the aged Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges contemplated the nature of immortality quoting Thomas Aquinas: “Intellectus naturaliter desiderat esse semper,” the mind naturally desires to exist forever. To this Borges asked, “But in what ways does it desire it?”
Obscurity is a tragedy in our times for it denies the possibility of immortality. The fear of falling into obscurity feels like a struggle against our own death, a ceasing to exist not merely in the here and now but also, and more importantly, in the here and after. We deny ourselves such thoughts about the after, more content with the here. Yet we fear our mortality in ways much different than Aquinas’s intellectual spiritualism, or even Borges’ modernist contemplations. In a culture where celebrities hold power, where Warhol’s dream that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame feels more likely, the fear of obscurity takes a particularly crucial form.
Academics are often fearful of obscurity. The demeaning metaphor of the “Ivory Tower” offers an easy dismissal of the academic as an isolated, aloof being, packed away with books and ideas, in laboratories and library reading rooms, determined and pursuant of passions that are ultimately insignificant to the larger world. The Ivory Tower rests on the obscure and inconsequential where immortality rests on hopeful threads of notoriety within the academy. Fame, however, is a different matter.
The “star system” of academics, like that of Hollywood, rests on the cult of personality. Academic celebrities command attention, lecture fees, adoring graduate students and comfortable offices with large windows. They are figures we want to see as much as hear. “I wonder what so and so looks like?” is a common question in graduate school in reference to some well-known and oft-quoted working academic. For those academics who put their photographs on their book jackets, celebrity status becomes more tangible. Like head shots, these iconic images tell us nothing about the academic worth of the book, the ideas inside, but only what the writer looks like: a fashionable attribute to a carefully constructed idea. “I’m thinking of including a photograph of myself with my curriculum vitae,” a graduate student colleague recently said to me. Of course, one of the more famous academic book photographs would be that of Camille Paglia. Paglia, refusing the obscurity of the back cover, instead preferred the front for her second book, Vamps and Tramps. She commands big lecture fees these days. A star is born.
I live in New York City, specifically in the neighborhood long-known as Hell’s Kitchen. It is a changing, gentrifying neighborhood just west of the theater district and Times Square. To live here is to live in two worlds: one of old brick tenements, warehouses and theaters, recent immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere; the other, more trendy side, with chic restaurants and bars, tourists flowing over from their matinees and evening concerts, and the growing population of younger residents moving into fairly cheap housing with expectations of acting and modeling careers. I live in this neighborhood, a graduate student among performers and audiences, among the working-class and celebrity hopefuls, all within the horizon of mid-town Manhattan skyscrapers and on the fringes of Broadway. In the shadows of such giants, we live in hope.
I belong to a gym near my apartment. It happens to be next door to Studio 54, which now hosts the successful revival of Cabaret. I often maneuver my way through the matinee crowds on my way to the gym. Most of the people who go to this gym are aspiring for performance work: actors, dancers, singers, models. Others find their livelihoods behind the cameras and curtains. On one Saturday afternoon, while riding the stationary bike, I overhear a conversation behind me. A tall, bulky man, tanned, dark hair wearing a white t-shirt is talking with a petite woman. She, thin and agile, smiling and laughing. “I can’t continue doing this work,” he says to her. “I’m 35 now and I’m tired of going to the calls, waiting for call backs that never come or that never materialize. I’m trying to figure out something new.” The woman listens, encourages and supports “Maybe you just need to network more. Maybe you need a new agent. Have you called Tom?” I listen and watch one of the seven television screens playing VH1 “Before they were Stars” (or was it “Where are They Now?”). I pedal and pedal, and forget the conversation for awhile — wanting to forget it for it sounded so familiar to me. It sounded just like a number of conversations I have had with fellow graduate students over the past few years. Change a few words — campus interview for call back, conference presentation for network, faculty advisor for agent — and the conversation was the same. I kept pedaling, hoping that I would get away from these two. I didn’t get that far.
The actor and the academic are, in many senses, hybrid forms in a culture obsessed with obscurity. I say obscurity here and not celebrity because they are mutually dependent experience. The actor and the academic represent two halves of a culture where the burden of fame looms large, and the demands of obscurity even larger. It comforts us to think of the actor and the academic as distinct and different for we don’t have to deal with the possibilities of our own obscurities, the struggles of being on the margins; and, ultimately, the realities of our own mortalities. Our culture’s worship of fame reflects such insecurities. As the song from the eponymous movie tells us, “Fame. I want to live forever.” The idea of fame holds our desires to be representable, known, remembered.
Increasingly we are attempting to find fame in our obscurities. We are resurrecting our lives on the margins through an immortality of obscurity, where the marginal and the outcast are figures we adore; where we can all set up a “stage” on the internet; where we can all imagine our obscurities as precisely the stuff of fame. Gone are the celebrities of the past, glittery personas that seem unreal and distant. Their flaws, while human, were certainly not our flaws. Their image was grander than us, projected on wide movie screens in dark theaters, they were unimaginable. These days, fame seems less distant, much closer to our lives, much more imaginable. In cutting down those wide-screen images, we use them to cover our fears of obscurity. Obscurity and immortality feel not so far apart.
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In the 1999 Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting, obscurity and fame play a particularly ironic game. Will Hunting (Matt Damon), the working-class South Boston janitor with innate skills in advanced mathematics, becomes the center of a struggle between sensitive psychologist and community college professor Sean (Robin Williams), and the distinguished, and honored MIT math professor Jerry Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). In one scene Sean and Lambeau are having lunch in a South Boston pub, and Lambeau asks the waiter if he knows of Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk. He knows both, and Lambeau bemoans the fact that while he may have received academic accolades in his field, he has yet to achieve real notoriety — real fame. Will Hunting is Lambeau’s path to such fame. Of course Sean, played by the ever-eccentric and always emotional Robin Williams, argues with his old college roommate and now Harvard professor. Lambeau engaged Sean to treat the troubled Will who was orphaned at a young age and had a history of criminal arrests. His therapy is of course two sided, for as much as Sean shows Will how to live beyond his past — his abuses in foster care, his inabilities to sustain meaningful commitments — Will shows Sean how to embrace the world after the death of his wife. The therapist and the patient teach each other a new way of living, both obscure figures in the larger social world: an orphaned working-class youth and a community college professor find a connection here precisely in their obscurity.
Lambeau’s desires for fame cast a shadow over the frailties of the obscure. You know who is good and who is not so good. You know you’d rather be in Sean’s small cluttered office instead of Lambeau’s richly furnished salon. Yet the film plays with these desires of ours, for films do imagine for us our own fame. We are likely to identify with those aspects of characters that feel like us. The irony, however, is a deeper and less apparent distortion of this feeling.
In an early scene, Will and his friends are in a bar in Cambridge where a mixture of locals and university students hang out. Will approaches Skylar, a university student played by Mini Driver. Her English accent seems perfect for the scene. A male graduate student, sporting the requisite ponytail, who comes to save Skylar from “townie” harassment, quickly interrupts their conversation. Will and the graduate student engage in an academic debate about commerce in the colonial era (it is Boston of course), with Will, who we later learn can also speed read, out-smarting the Harvard educated just as he will out-smart the mathematics faculty. Will shows he knows more of the theories of colonial mercantile trade than the history graduate student, and can even evaluate the merits of such theories, whereas the graduate student is left only to regurgitate the ideas he reads. In anger, the graduate student rests on all that he has left: his class status. “I’ll have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive through on our way to a skiing trip,” he says, as the last effort to hold on to his intellectual integrity and barroom pride. Will responds, “At least I won’t be unoriginal.”
Will’s success is not simply that he can outwit or out-smart an academic. Rather, he can be original in a way that the academic can never be. The film imagines success as precisely this quality of originality: a success so keen to acting that the film at times feels overly self-reflexive. Real success, the film seems to suggest, is achieved through originality, the kind of originality that we often associate with fame: the unique actor, the personality, the individual. These are the qualities that make us celebrities in a society so worshipful of fame. Fame trumps class status in such a way that we believe in its democratic power. The Ivory Tower, shadowing the day-to-day life of the working-class “townies” of Cambridge, holds a promise of wealth that, in the end, fails to live up to real social status, to real originality, to real fame.
As the film ends, Will drives west to California, leaving his South Boston world to be with Skylar, now a medical student at Stanford. He has come to a reckoning about his past, and ready for a relationship he initially rejected. Thus, Matt Damon as Will drives out of the landscape of the film, and is launched into his own Hollywood fame with Oscar nominations and cover stories on all the glossy magazines. The meaning feels almost intended: Will the gifted working-class youth goes off to a new life in California; Damon the Harvard graduate goes off to California to achieve fame. His face, with its bright white smile, is ubiquitous. He becomes a star. He is Matt Damon, the Harvard graduate, the actor, the screenwriter, the personality. In this sense, the film allows us to both identify with Will’s obscurity, an obscurity we desire for it originality, its talent, its feistiness, as much as we desire Damon’s own fame. The film makes Damon immortal as both character and actor. The film allows us to imagine our own obscurities as fame itself.
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Writing to his friend and fellow poet Yvor Winters in May of 1927, Hart Crane questioned the contours of work and writing through a critique of a recent poetry review by Edmund Wilson. “It is so damned easy,” Crane bemoans,
for such as he, born into easy means, graduated from a fashionable university into a critical chair overlooking Washington Square, etc. to sit tight and hatch little squibs of advice to poets not to be so ‘professional’ as he claims they are, as though all the names he had just mentioned have been as suavely nourished as he — as though 4 out of 5 of them hadn’t been damned well forced the major parts of their lives to grub at any kind of work they could manage by hook or crook and the fear of hell to secure! Yes, why not step into the State Department and join the diplomatic corps for a change! indeed, or some other courtly occupation which would bring you into wide and active contact with world affairs! As a matter of fact I’m all too ready to concede that there are several other careers more engaging to follow than that of poetry. But the circumstances of one’s birth, the conduct of one’s parents, the current economic structure of society and a thousand other local factors have as much or more to say about successions to such occupations, the naïve volitions of the poet to the contrary.
Wilson’s criticism is but an outgrowth of the Ivory Tower, yet its weight in the world held value at a time when literary critics said things about poets, and people beyond poets and academics read them. Crane, the poet writing to another poet (Winters was himself preparing to enter graduate study at Stanford University), contemplates with anger the predicament of the artist, and, by implication, the obscurity that shrouds him from other more “courtly occupations.” It is the nature of work that Crane inveighs against here, resisting the force of the “professional” that weighs on the realities of laboring at menial tasks — so romanticized in our concepts of the struggling artist. The artist labors for the love of the work itself, we say. They struggle, live on the margins, accept their fate. But what do they struggle for? Or rather, what do they struggle against? Crane was caught in between these struggles, fighting his own financial hardships that plagued him for most of his adult life, and courting desires of becoming an important, perhaps even famous, poet. Underneath his rage, Crane’s words to Winters hold a reality even more felt today: how can we represent ourselves within a world so burdened by the fear of obscurity? Like the poet, the struggling actor, the contemporary academic, many of us confront this question — a question that bears on our own mortalities.
In his essay “Representation of the Intellectual,” Columbia University professor Edward Said writes that “intellectuals are individuals with a vocation for the art of representing, whether that is talking, writing, teaching, appearing on television. And that vocation is important to the extent that it is publicly recognizable and involves both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.” For Said, the “art of representing” is a social performance that impresses upon the intellectual the need to question, critique, and challenge injustices and inequalities. The intellectual, now so often housed in the halls of the university, the Ivory Tower of inconsequentiality, functions in the domain of the representable, and needs to find a place in the iconic images that construct the public life of our nation. To recover the place of the academic, Said places the more traditional work of teaching and writing within the domain of celebrities: television.
Yet what if you can’t perform in such public ways, in such celebrity-like contexts? What then? What may it mean to exist, to represent, precisely in between the domains of “Before they were Stars” and “Where are They Now” — a domain that holds many of our possibilities and our fears. As we labor at our daily lives, burdened by the expectations of fame, we may wonder how we attempt to represent ourselves within another realm of fame — the realm of obscurity itself that fame so desperately needs and demands. The distinctions we draw between the actor and the academic serve us well in blinding us to that place where our minds desire a fame so unlikely and struggle with existing in an obscurity so inevitable.